Michael Williams, who sits on the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for a legal opinion on whether the RRC would have authority to halt drilling in the Barnett Shale.

The RRC has primary regulatory jurisdiction over the natural gas and oil industry, pipelines and pipeline transporters, and natural gas utilities, among other things. It also posts drilling permit information on its website. According to the RRC, as of last Monday (Jan. 4), it was taking one day to obtain an expedited drilling permit and three days to obtain a standard permit.

Williams, a Republican who is said to be considering a U.S. Senate bid, has served on the three-member RRC since 1999, including a stint as chairman. A spokesman told NGI that Williams requested an opinion from the state attorney general about the RRC’s authority “because it made no sense to question whether or not drilling was posing a health threat until the question was answered about the commission’s authority.”

Last month state Rep. Lon Burnam renewed a call for a moratorium on issuing new drilling permits in the Barnett Shale until the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had completed an air quality study of the region — a study expected at any time.

State Sen. Wendy Davis separately has called for a senate investigation of the environmental impacts from Barnett Shale drilling operations after ambient air data collected by the TCEQ found harmful concentrations of benzene at some drilling locations (see Daily GPI, Nov. 5, 2009).

The TCEQ last month said on-site investigations related to complaints to the Dallas/Fort Worth regional office, which oversees the Barnett Shale region’s air quality, are to be given an “immediate response priority” within 12 hours of receiving a complaint (see Daily GPI, Jan. 6). In December the TCEQ launched a website to distribute information about air pollution testing in the Barnett Shale (see Daily GPI, Dec. 18, 2009).

A spokeswoman in Abbott’s office told NGI Friday that an opinion request may take up to six months.

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